An Old Tar's Honor Medal; Won at Mobile Bay by a Gallant Rescue Under the Eyes of Farragut

New York Times, 16 January 1898

Although James Avery had been in the United States Navy for many years and had won several bars to be added to the good conduct medal he had received, it was until recently that it was learned by his immediate superiors that he was an 'honor man.' That is, he had received a medal of honor from Congress for bravery displayed in the civil war. It was by accident that it was found out how Avery got his medal, for although he had served on one ship for more than one enlistment, he never displayed the medal or spoke of it. When it was known that he had it every officer on the ship went to Avery to hear his story.

The story, as told by one of the younger officers who sailed on the ship with Avery, is as follows:

"We were lying in one of the Southern ports some few years ago waiting for a detail of men to make up our full complement before starting on a cruise for a foreign station. We wanted long-term men, as we didn't want to have to exchange with the ships we were to relieve. Among men assigned to us was a little fellow whose papers showed that he had been in the service a long time and had a good record, but had less than six months to stay before his enlistment expired. For this reason the Captain did not like to accept him, but nevertheless he did, since the man had served continuously. When he was called to answer the necessary questions and get his number, he said that he was an able seaman and had served through the war. He wore his good-conduct medal, I suppose, to make an impression, but he never said a word about his having won the medal of honor.

Becomes Berth-Deck Cook.

"When we left port Avery was put into my division. He was quiet and attended to his duties well, but he was lonesome. There were no rigging and spars or sails on our ship, and it was the first of the modern vessel that the old man had shipped on. We kept him at work for a while in the division, but the work got to be too hard for him, and I reported the fact to the Captain. One of the cooks was taken sick, and we sent him to a hospital at the first port we made.

"Avery was standing on deck one day smoking his pipe, when I called him and asked if he wanted to take the berth-deck cook's place. I will never forget his answer as long as I live. He looked me right in the eyes and said:

"'I guess I can cook better than I can do the work on this tin ship. It ain't home to me here without sails and masts, and them engines keep me awake nights. I'd rather cook than try to do any more machine work.'

"We gave him the place, and he made a good cook. He drilled with the powder division and was seemingly happy. His quarters were changed, and it was then that we found out about the medal that caused every officer on the ship to respect the 'quiet old man,' as they got to call Avery.

"Avery came to me one day and asked if I would mind taking care of a package for him. 'It don't amount to very much,' he said, 'but I have no place to keep it and I wouldn't like to lose it.' He handed me a small parcel wrapped up in a piece of newspaper and carefully tied with a small piece of lashing.

How the Captain Saw It.

"Some of the men used to give the officers money to keep for them, but as there had been some trouble over the matter we stopped that. I had forgotten to ask Avery what the package contained, so I took it to the Captain, who told me to send Avery into the wardroom. Several of the officers off duty were in there at the time. The skipper was a gruff old man, and when Avery entered the room he was white and nervous and could scarcely answer the Captain's questions. The skipper held the package in his hands.

"' What is in that package, Avery?' he asked, holding it up, 'and why don't you keep it yourself?'

"'It isn't much, but I have no place to keep it, and I don't want to lose it.'

"'Open it and let us see what you have that you don't want to lose.'

"Avery took the package and tried to open it, but his hands shook so that he couldn't. One of the officers took the package and started to pull the paper off. The package fell on the table and the medal rolled out and down on the deck.

"There are a few medals of honor in the navy, and only a few officers had ever seen one of them. When it was picked up and handed to the Captain he seemed to be dazed, and it was some time before he spoke. Finally he said: 'Gentlemen, this man has a medal of honor, and by God it is the only one in this ship and belongs to the berth-deck cook!"

"Avery, poor fellow, din't seem to know what to do. He could scarcely stand up. The Captain asked him where he got it, but Avery pointed to the paper in the box and said: 'That can tell you more about it than I can. I did like the rest of the men that day, and I never expected anything more than my pay and rations. We tried to do our duty, and when we saw the men in the other ship being shot down and some drowning, we could only try to help them. God knows it was hard to seem them being murdered without much chance for escape.'

Praised by Farragut.

"The Captain took the paper from the box. It read: 'James Avery, seaman on board the United States steamship Metacomet, was one of the boat's crew which, in charge of Acting Ensign H. C. Neilds of the United States Navy, went to the rescue of the officers and crew of the United States Monitor Tecumseh, when that vessel was sunk by a torpedo in passing the forts in Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864. This boat's crew, under their brave and gallant leader, went within a few hundred yards of one of the forts under a fire which Admiral Farragut expresses as "one of the most galling" he ever saw and succeeded in rescuing from death ten of the crew of the Tecumseh. Their conduct elicited the admiration of both friend and foe.'

"The Captain put the paper and the medal back in the box, and then said to Avery: 'You are a brave and honest man. I will keep the medal for you.' When Avery left the wardroom the Captain got up and turned to the officers and said: 'It isn't much, as Avery said, but what one among you wouldn't lose an arm to be entitled to wear it? Avery is our berth-deck cook, but he can command more respect than any man on the ship. We will have to find a better place for him.'

"And we did. Avery staid with the ship until we returned home. He received another bar for his good conduct medal, and when he was discharged the Captain took him to Washington and found a good berth for him in one of the bureaus of the Navy Department. The skipper never tires of telling of his berth-deck cook who had won the medal of honor, and at each Christmas he sends the old man a substantial present."